Personal Essay: The Great American Marketing Brochure

The contest said it was accepting essays of 500-5000 words, about what it means to be a twentysomething writer. I thought, I write lots of things in the 500 word format. I don’t know if this was the final draft I submitted, but it’s the most recent one I could find offhand.

Looking at it now, I can tell you why it didn’t win: the introduction and the close are too abrupt, and don’t make enough sense. It’s got a lot of excellent turns of phrase, but it’s not complete or coherent.

I write for a living, although it’s not the kind of writing people think of when they say “I want to be a writer.” I can’t lie and call it fiction, and when I tell the truth, I’m not in the running for a Pulitzer. That’s because I write instruction manuals and promotional brochures for computer software. We still call it “literature” but it’s about as close to serious art as the blue-tinted landscapes above the bed in cheap hotels.

For example, the other week, I wrote a ten-page comparison of two rival products so that salespeople would go to meetings prepared with detailed knowledge of competitors. My boss then pointed out that salespeople don’t read, so I condensed it into a one-page chart of key sentence fragments. I wrote the Cliff’s Notes version of my own analysis.

It’s a long way from what I wanted to write in the undergraduate days when I still had all my hair, attended fiction workshops, and subscribed to the American Poetry Review. I wrote my senior paper in college on the Althusserian constructions of masculinity in mid-20th-century Chilean anarcho-syndicalist novels (conclusion: “ultimately, it’s pretty vague.”) I was serious. But then, after graduation, my career options seemed to range from barista to office-temp, and when I got the offer to write software manuals– things that people might actually read, unlike my poetry– I grabbed it.

I learned quickly that a writer of technical manuals or marketing copy is not an artist, because this kind of writing is not an art. It is barely a craft. It is a trade. It’s the literary equivalent of background noise, it’s the verbiage everyone ignores, it’s so far from creative writing it might as well be destructive.

An artsy writer can aspire to perfection, although most acknowledge that perfection is impossible. A real trade writer, however, doesn’t just give up on perfection. Trade writing means deciding that excellence is probably more work than it’s worth. Every day, I convince my co-workers and myself that good-enough is good enough. I am an advocate of mediocrity.

Let artists worry about whether they’re going to be regarded as relevant or historically important, whether they’ll write the Great American Novel, whether they’ll be recognized in their lifetime. Few aspire to the title of “greatest copywriter of the decade.” And history? Even your contemporaries will ignore you. If you do a good job, nobody outside your office will know who did your work, because it will lack any sort of identifiable flair or style. Your style is the company style.

But I dream of writing the Next Great Marketing Brochure. I know exactly what it’s like: it’s about five hundred words long, and it’s printed on glossy cardstock. People line up at trade shows to get a copy, and when they open it up, they follow the instructions I provide: read me, buy me, love me.

2 thoughts on “Personal Essay: The Great American Marketing Brochure”

  1. If it was my book, I would definitely have included this, that its cold reality and wit might sneer at the haughty pretense that I’m certain must mark the other entries.

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